Mental health experts generally agree that, alongside depression, anxiety has dramatically increased since the pandemic. But while anxiety is considered solely a mental issue, it often manifests itself in a variety of physical symptoms. Those, in turn, often fuel more anxiety.
To get a better handle on the connection between the mind and the body when it comes to anxiety, we checked in with two local experts – Dr. M. McCray Ashby, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with Clarity Clinic NWI, and Steve Butera, executive director of New Leaf Resources.
What are some of the most common causes of anxiety?
Ashby: Anxiety can stem from many sources such as trauma, low self-esteem/insecurities or even no reason at all. Anxiety from trauma may manifest as reliving experiences, intrusive thoughts and/or hypervigilance. Low esteem/insecurities can be seen as worrying if people are being critical, if people are judging and/or fear of failure. While some individuals may be aware of specific triggers for fears, not all anxiety has a source and can occur for no reason.
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Butera: We’re finding anxiety to be an issue for a growing number of people. The most common causes have to do with things that people anticipate and worry about in the future. They worry about what’s going on in the world and how that’s going to impact them. They worry about their families. If there’s something that they worry about and dwell on continuously over time, it tends to turn into anxiety. A lot of worries are normal — we all get concerned about certain things. But there’s a point where it crosses over — sometimes even after a particular situation has resolved itself — and there’s no threat there anymore, where some people still feel anxious.
How can anxiety, generally considered a mental issue, affect a person’s physical well-being?
Ashby: Anxiety may manifest as physical symptoms including, but not limited to, stomach pain, nausea, shortness of breath, chest pressure, shaking, tremors, sweating and flushing. This is why some people with new-onset anxiety/panic attacks end up presenting in an emergency department out of concern for heart attacks or strokes.
Butera: We exist as a whole person. You can’t really separate the mind from the body from the spirit. So when we have anxiety, it will often manifest in different physical symptoms. And when we have physical problems, those can cause anxiety as well. It becomes a cycle in a way, where the anxiety tends to cause physical symptoms and the physical symptoms create even more anxiety. Part of the goal, then, is to try to interrupt that cycle.
Specifically, anxiety can impact different systems and areas of the body, including heart rate, blood pressure, libido, gastrointestinal system, breathing, sleeping. Some of these physical issues can then lead to a panic attack for some people, which is an extreme case of anxiety. And all of these issues can then lead to irritability and poor coping and other things that negatively affect a person’s overall well-being.
What are some ways to prevent — or at least ease the severity of — anxiety?
Ashby: It’s important to remember that anxiety is not inherently a bad thing. Anxiety is what makes me get up for work so I can pay my bills. Anxiety is what makes a student study for a test so they don’t fail. But anxiety can become a problem if there is too much of it and an individual struggles to function or, alternatively, if there’s too little and an individual does not care about anything. If there’s too much anxiety, learning coping skills and relaxation techniques can help. One simple technique is slow, deep breathing.
Butera: One good way to manage anxiety is to try and stay in the present. A lot of times we’re thinking about things that haven’t happened yet — and sometimes they never end up happening — and those thoughts can really ramp up our anxiety. It’s also good to stay focused on something such as reading a book or working on a particular project, because anxiety often involves a lot of different thoughts going in a lot of different directions that kind of become overwhelming. It’s important to recognize that we are not our thoughts. Just because something is going through our mind doesn’t make it true or define who we are. If anxiety persists over a long period and doesn’t seem to ease, there is help available. Working with a therapist can really help a person find techniques to cope.
How can you alleviate the potential physical effects of anxiety?
Ashby: While we can’t simply avoid anxiety, meditation and mindfulness activities may help an individual be aware of their own physical self. This may aid in being aware of rising anxiety so coping skills can be utilized earlier. Exercise is another great way to reduce mental and physical symptoms of anxiety because it releases a lot of natural endorphins.
Butera: One of the most important things to do is to get a handle on our breathing. Take some long deep breaths and slow things down a little bit, which can help ease the tension in different parts of the body.